Why We Study History

From one of the texts I am using for my Exploring Place: History class — A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community by Robert R. Archibald — comes as clear an explanation of why we study history as I’ve ever come across:

[Memory] is an ongoing process through which we create usable narratives that explain the world in which we live, stories that inevitably connect us to each other, history that builds community. The community we create is founded in shared remembrance and grounded in place, especially those places that are conducive to the casual associations necessary for emergence of shared memory…. Places, memories, and stories are inextricably connected, and we cannot create a real community without these elements.

So there is a point to history, for history is a process of facilitating conversations in which we consider what we have done well, what we have done poorly, and how we can do better, conversations that are a prelude to action…. As we face the past, we are also facing the future. — pp. 24-25

Come to think of it, these are some of the reasons why we write (and write blogs!) too.

Exploring Places

I returned to school a few years ago, and am working on my degree in historical studies. My next class starts in about three weeks, and I’m talking a short vacation before diving back in … so I’m stepping away from the computer and from blogging to spend a little time with my family and to try to wrap up a few projects. An article I came across some time ago — Life Trumps Blogging — is always a good reminder about keeping a balanced perspective.

The upcoming class is called Exploring Place: History, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Here’s an excerpt from the course description:

Thinking of place as a community in a geographical location or physical environment, this interdisciplinary course seeks to offer an opportunity for a place-based approach to history. Explore the local history of the place you live (or some other place of interest), whether you define that place as a neighborhood, a whole village or town or city, a geographical region, or a watershed. Research, for example, a particular topic or period of local history by engaging with historical scholarship, consulting local archives and historical societies and/or interviewing community members who have witnessed local history.

It’s one of the classes that has an independent study component, and classes like that are always my favorite. This one’s so much right up my alley that I couldn’t be more excited for it to get started. I’ll also be considering ways to incorporate elements of the experience into this blog; I’ve never actually done that before, so I guess I’ll be making that up as I go along. Should be a fun time, don’t you think?

When hard-boiled eggs explode…

… it sounds an awful lot like a gun going off! Trust me! Don’t try this at home:

Apparently this is what happens when you sit down to write a quick blog post after setting some eggs to boiling, the blog post takes longer than you thought, and you forget about the eggs … they wait about forty minutes then remind you to PAY ATTENTION! Or set a timer next time….

Lunch will be delayed indefinitely….

New photos! From the Atlanta History Center

I’ve set up a collection of photos from two trips to the Atlanta History Center last week.

This is the first time I’ve used a Flickr collection, and it seems like they’re a decent way to organize blocks of photos, especially since I tend to take quite a few and post a lot (too many? certainly not!) on the site. I also moved my existing sets into collections; the collections page is here.

Blogging and Economics

Bloggers, like writers of all sorts throughout history, are constantly asking themselves why they do it. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s something unique to writers, writers do tend to attach (angst-ridden?) debates about purpose and meaning to their writing lives in ways that, say, doctors or chemists or engineers, typically do not. And at some point in nearly every debate about the whys of writing, money comes up — usually in some negative context, as if writerly professions are the only ones where economics should somehow be kept at bay.

Before this morning, I had never heard of Payperpost. I didn’t start this site with the intention of making money, and have so far not invested the time necessary to figure out what options I might have for actually generating some supplementary income.  I’m typically not bothered by advertising on blogs or web sites, as long as it’s not intrusive (like popups or graphic overlays) and doesn’t distract from my ability to focus on the writing or imagery on the site. And, admittedly, I don’t understand the business model behind blog ads and have never actually followed the links to something being advertised — so don’t I really get the economics behind it either.

In any case, I followed this series of posts this morning, starting with Honoring the Hard Working Blue Collar Bloggers by Lorelle. Lorelle links to a discussion of Payperpost at Deep Jive Interests. A notable and praiseworthy element of both posts is their recognition of the folks they’re calling “blue-collar bloggers” — which I take to be everyone but those who think they know better than the rest of us what this medium should be used for. In other words, most of us. See also the precise characterization of the underlying intellectual issues on Seth Finklestein’s Infothought. Seth makes some very good points.

One of the things I like about the whole idea of blogging is the very democratic nature of it. While I think the large volume of writing out there may demand new skills at finding and absorbing information that matters to us, that simply means we need to develop those skills — ones which for each individual can mean learning more about what’s really important to them. In that sense, the democracy that blogging offers works in multiple directions to potentially make us all better writers and better readers. That people can get paid for that, in whatever form, simply means that we’re attaching economic value to that process and its potential. The economics of an activity are not evidence of its perniciousness; they just represent one piece of the activity’s cultural significance that we need to consider in our discussions.

I could probably spend the whole day spinning out various related themes from these posts and the ones that inspired them (which I’ve only glanced at so far), so more on that another time. Those original posts could use a highly critical eye. I’ll close by saying I’m typically very suspicious of anything that sounds like elitism or is written from an obvious embrace of cultural stratification. That’s not to say that cultures, all cultures, are not layered in one way or another; but is to make the point that blogging’s very nature as a wide-open, available-to-anyone medium has the potential to tilt windmills away from the elitist tendencies in any culture, toward something more inclusive that engages us with each other as individual human beings instead of stereotypes.

Some fair questions

In How Do You Choose What You Blog About?, Lorelle VanFossen of The Blog Herald asks that question and a series of others that delve into different reasons bloggers keep up with their blogs. Setting aside for a moment the different types of blogs and bloggers, I think all questions about blogging ought to also consider one other element of the phenomenon:

In the earlier days of blogging, it was mainly a form of public writing. Expanding technological capabilities have allowed it to tag up with all sorts of other media, mainly (I think) still imagery, video, and music. But at its core, it’s still a medium of writing, and that fact makes me wonder about why people want to write so much so badly, and why they want to do so — with relative ease — in a public manner. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great — I just also think the question is an interesting cultural and social one that’s well worth exploring.

On Learning

From Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.

I’m putting together resources for a research paper on the cultural and social impact of photography. McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is one of my sources, but I also picked up The Medium is the Massage, because it looked interesting (and, for a change, SHORT).

McLuhan’s books are full of gems like this. I just started browsing through them and didn’t know what to expect when I started; but nearly every page strikes me in some way or another. This particular quote leads a short piece that expresses admiration for the potential of technology, but simultaneously contains the warning that we aren’t good at grasping the effects of technological transitions. We lock ourselves in psychological and intellectual straightjackets, McLuhan suggests, because “the interplay between the old and the new … creates many problems and confusions.” McLuhan’s remedy:

The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of … new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view….

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration….

A Non-Linear Coincidence

For my Science and Technology in Western Culture class, I’m reading Society and Technological Change by Rudi Volti. One of the assignments for the current module was to read Volti’s chapter on the development of printing technologies. Volti has a short discussion in this chapter on the psychological effects of printing; that is, on psychological changes that might have occurred as print technology improved and publishing began to flourish.

Volti briefly writes about Marshall McLuhan, and about some of McLuhan’s ideas on the fundamental social changes that occurred in conjunction with the expansion of print publishing and other media. Says Volti:

Some fascinating possibilities … have been suggested by Marshall McLuhan, for whom media such as print and television had consequences that far outweigh the overt messages they carry. Printed books fundamentally changed civilization not because of the information they transmitted; the greatest consequence of printing lay in the different modes of thought and perception that it fostered. In McLuhan’s analysis, each medium engenders a distinctive way of looking at the world; as his famous aphorism has it, “the medium is the message.” The reading of the printed word makes readers think in sequence, just as a sentence is sequentially read from left to right. – pg. 190

I’ve haven’t read much McLuhan, so I don’t really know how well this represents his views. But this is perhaps what Tim Lacy is asking about, in his post What is Linear Thinking? It would seem reasonable that McLuhan – or at least Volti in his interpretation of McLuhan – is highlighting a significant change in the technology of thought that came about in conjunction with the increased availability of the printed word. While I think there’s much to be said for this dramatic change in thought processes, I’m not convinced that linear thinking of this type adequately encompasses what happens in our minds when we read.

Obviously, we tend to read sequentially, at least in the sense that we typically read both books and other materials from beginning to end, and, further, we expect some logical relationship between the ideas presented at the beginning and those presented at the end. So the activity of reading does strike me as a linear process. However, reading and learning from what we read are two different things entirely. For sure, I can read something from the first page to the last page, absorbing what I read in the sequential order the author provides – but that isn’t necessarily how I learn from it. If the reading offers me anything at all, then the linear process combines with other mental processes where I make associations, form concepts, supplement prior knowledge, absorb and relate details to others I’m already aware of, and (hopefully!) emerge from the reading with either a more solid understanding of something I already know or at least a beginning understanding of something entirely new. Reading – at least reading to learn – is a much more iterative and hierarchical process than it is a sequential process. If this might be described as “non-linear thinking” (and I suppose it might), I would think that non-linear thinking is not the same as illogical thinking – since illogical thinking suggests an inability to build on prior knowledge when attempting to learn something new (or to think about anything else, for that matter).

Continuing the quotation above, Volti goes on to say:

Reading also produces an egocentric view of the world, for the reader’s involvement with the printed word is solitary and private. – pg. 190

This was actually the part that made me suspicious of the “linear thinking” statements about reading. While it is undoubtedly true that reading is a solitary and private activity, I don’t think that adequately describes the personal, cultural, or social significance of reading (or of writing, for that matter). As Benedict Anderson describes so well in Imagined Communities (I swear, I’ll be referring to that book for the rest of my life), one of the true revolutions that occurred through the explosion of printing was a new awareness among human beings of the simultaneous existence of other human beings. At minimum, my reading of a book implies an awareness of one other person – the book’s author – and in all likelihood embraces some sense that other people have read – have experienced – the book in ways similar to mine. If I spun that theory out to one other logical conclusion, I might even say that the reason so many people write, and so many more want to write, is that the sense of existing in a world simultaneously with other people has become an endemic part of the way modern men and women perceive (the significance of?) their existence.

On “Fear: A Cultural History”

Last night, I started reading Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke. I’ve had my eye on the book for a few weeks now, and finally picked it up at Borders yesterday. It’s the type of book I like, because I enjoy writing that confidently integrates history with cultural studies. It also has some relevance to my History of Science and Technology in Western Culture class, as it discusses fears of science, technology, medical advancements, and military machinery. I’m only on page 50, and have already come across some fascinating ideas.

Bourke devotes the first section of the book to describing the fear of death and how it affected individual lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She illustrates how fear of death was intertwined with a fear of being prematurely buried – that is, buried alive. At the same time, she explains how closely fear of death was related to fearing poverty; and she notes how social welfare targeted at reducing poverty didn’t eradicate the fear, but only diluted its effects and changed in focus:

Rather than trembling about the effects of absolute privation, people shuddered to think about the consequences of relative impoverishment, such as being rehoused in a rougher area or forced to sell prized possessions. The providers of public assistance were determined to retain (indeed, even boost) this element of fear. After all, they reasoned, public assistance should not be made too easy in case people jettisoned all economic anxieties, thus damaging the economy. As a consequence, moral panics arose around unscrupulous individuals and groups who did not feel sufficiently apprehensive of the stigma attached to the receipt of poor relief. – pg. 27

Describing the use of fear as a public policy tool, and explaining how its boundaries were altered to reflect public reaction to policy or manipulate society, strikes me as a fairly unique perspective. I’m curious about the extent to which Bourke keeps these themes out in front, as she continues the discussion of the cultural parameters of fear.